Traumatised by loss of young men at sea, mothers and relatives work to find alternatives to perilous journey to Europe.
The morning shift begins under a bright, clear sky. At the fishing wharf of Thiaroye-sur-mer, a coastal town of 45,000 people, a handful of pirogues return from a long night at sea. Others slowly drift away from the shore.
Women stand on the wet floor of the wharf. Buckets of fish destined to be sold at the local market surround them. But filling those buckets is becoming harder.
Due to depleting stocks, fishermen in the town, located 12km from Senegal’s capital, Dakar, often have to go 30km out in order to find fish. It is making it increasingly difficult for them to sustain a livelihood, and many young men are responding by looking elsewhere for work.
Awa Kane, 33, and her aunt Anta Kane buy fish every morning. Awa is giggly and joyful until the issue of young men migrating to Europe is raised.
“If I start to talk about my brother, I’m going to cry,” she says.
Awa’s brother disappeared on his way to Spain 10 years ago, along with two cousins.
According to Thiaroye-based associations, 156 local young men have been lost at sea since 2006. A further 374 are incarcerated in the Canary Islands after being caught trying to reach there illegally, while 210 have been repatriated.
Thiaroye-sur-mer is one of the Senegalese communities most affected by what has become known as the “pirogue phenomenon”. The children and youth call it “Barca mba barzakh”. In the local Wolof language, this means “Barcelona or death”.
Boarding the crowded pirogues in Thiaroye-sur-mer in the hope of reaching Spain is a calculated risk that many continue to take. Reaching Europe appears to be their best hope of earning money with which they can support their families back home.
In 2005 and 2006, this crisis reached a peak as Senegal witnessed a massive wave of departures for Europe, but it has since subsided. The Spanish authorities of the Canary Islands reported apprehending 30,000 migrants in 2006 from several African countries, 15,000 of whom were Senegalese. At least 1,000 out 7,000 African refugees who died during the crossings in the same year were Senegalese.
In 2016, only 4,047 Senegalese crossed the Mediterranean sea according to the IOM.
Every year, 200,000 young people join the labour market in Senegal, according to the United Nations. With a rising population and urban growth, the same Thiaroye families who, a few decades ago, owned a field and a pirogue, now have to find new ways to make a living.
When Spain expanded its border surveillance to the entire Andalucian coast and the Canary Islands in 2007, the roads of migration took a more precarious turn by pushing migrants to set off from Senegal’s shores instead of taking the much-shorter route through Morocco.
Towns such as Thiaroye-sur-mer, with fishing communities already equipped with pirogues and the skills to navigate them, became popular departure zones for these economic migrants.
Those embarking on this illicit journey, pay an average of 300,000 CFA Franc ($511) to smugglers, a sum that can only be arranged with the help of the entire family, in order to leave by boat. Yet, the journey remains perilous. According to the Catholic NGO Caritas, 2,000 Senegalese and Malian citizens perished in these waters in 2014-2015.
Anta Kane, Awa’s aunt, has also felt the pain of this. Her son was 22 years old when he died. It was in 2003, on a Tuesday, she recalls as she sits on an empty bucket that has been turned upside down.
“He spent one month in Mauritania before attempting to cross over to Spain. He called home to say he was about to travel by sea. We never heard from him again,” she says, wiping away her tears with her shawl.
Her other son lives with her, but doesn’t work. Anta supports his family so that he, too, isn’t forced to attempt the journey to Europe.
A collective of women
Anta is among the 375 women who have come together to form a mothers’ collective that is trying to stop the young men from undertaking the perilous journey.
Being part of the collective has helped her cope, she says. “It’s a way to entertain ourselves, to forget a little,” she says. “We have never found their bodies so … we pray for them.”
The Collective of Women against Illegal Migration was formed by Yayi Bayam Diouf in 2006. She is a popular figure in Thiaroye-sur-mer. The kids call her Maman Yayi.
She lost her only son Alioune in 2006. He was 26 years old. Eighty other men, mostly from West African countries, died alongside him that day. They were trying to reach Spain.
Upstairs in her Thiaroye home, Yayi sits barefoot on the floor of a large kitchen with an open laptop in front of her. She is in her 50s and wears a traditional wax cloth tied to her waist and black glasses.
Her serious countenance contrasts with her lively household. Behind her, three women bake cakes. Outside, on the terrace, chickens run between the drying laundry.
Yayi has just returned from Morocco, where she received an award from a Swiss NGO, Crans-Montana Forum, for her work in the community.
In Thiaroye’s patriarchal society, it was a bold move for a woman to try to make her voice heard as Yayi did when she formed the collective.
“Women are talking to each other, they help and trust each other,” Yayi says. “This kind of trust didn’t use to exist among us.”
Today, the collective organises workshops, skits and video screenings at Thiaroye’s youth centre aimed at persuading teenagers not to undertake the journey to Europe.
“Frontex practices a very repressive policy,” Yayi says of the border and coastguard agency created by the European Union in 2016. “If we had invested this money in skills training…” she adds, leaving her sentence unfinished.